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Wednesday, July 28, 1999

Drop Dead Gorgeous

Posted By on Wed, Jul 28, 1999 at 12:00 AM

What exactly is the satirical target of Drop Dead Gorgeous? Although this mockumentary appears to spoof small-town beauty pageants, it quickly unveils its true nature: a broad comedy about middle American strivers in all their provincial glory.

Screenwriter Lona Williams and director Michael Patrick Jann, veterans of television sitcoms and sketch comedy, are aiming for a Waiting for Guffman but fall drastically short. Their humor, delivered in rapid doses and with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, lacks the empathy and wry storytelling twists of Christopher Guest’s comic gem. The filmmakers project a palpable scorn for their subject matter which begs the question: Why paint such a large target and then shoot it with a cannon?

This is not to say that Drop Dead Gorgeous isn’t sporadically funny. The lethal competitiveness the fake documentary crew uncovers in the God-fearing, apple-pie town of Mount Rose, Minn., shows just how much is at stake for the 17-year-olds who seek the crown of Miss Teen Princess America.

Front-runner Becky Leeman (Denise Richards) comes from one of the town’s richest families, and her mother Gladys (Kirstie Alley), who once held the title herself, serves as the pageant’s local coordinator. Her only real competition is Amber Atkins (Kirsten Dunst), a hard-working, milk-fed blonde whose trailer-park roots – epitomized by her loud but proud single mother Annette (Ellen Barkin) – belie her desire to be a patrician newscaster à la Diane Sawyer. Other contestants are introduced, but there’s no doubt that it will come down to a battle between these two girls, whose good-bad personae are as clearly defined as those of professional wrestlers.

Michael Ritchie’s great 1975 film, Smile, covers much of the same beauty pageant territory with more intelligence and compassion by portraying an insular world finally feeling the repercussions of America’s societal shifts.

Smile’s ambivalence about tradition, competition and gender roles is replaced with blatant hypocrisy and unabashed ambition in Drop Dead Gorgeous, suggesting that feminism has shifted from the utopia of universal sisterhood to every woman for herself. The most frightening aspect of this insubstantial film is the idea that this may well be true.

Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at letters@metrotimes.com.

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